We have lived with nature

We the Saami are a native people. We have lived with nature, not against it. — Mio Negga in these climate justice stories from 350.org

I would guess that Saami herders and hunters rely as much on motor power and mobile phones as the rest of us, but also that they’re more inclined to give Nature the benefit of the doubt in decisions small and large. The people who plan, approve and construct a hydroelectric dam,  on the other hand, are more inclined to privilege shareholder value, economic growth, personal career advancement, financial gain.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the dam-makers get their way.

When I was little and had my first carpentry kit, my Dad showed me how much easier it was to saw and shape with the grain of the wood rather than across it. People who live well seem to have that knack in life, and I suspect it’s true of cultures too. By this measure, our turbocharged fossil-fuelled industrial culture  does not live well. We have fought spectacularly against the grain of Nature for the past two centuries, and have equally spectacularly got our own way. But only in the short term. Our greatest victories over Nature have been Pyrrhic. We are now re-learning something that smaller, unnoticed cultures, like that of the Saami, never needed to forget.    

In the spirit of taking small steps, it’s a question we may ask in our daily choices:  is this with nature, or against it?

(photo credit: Abi King, Inside the TravelLab)

Seashells by the shore

I once visited a beach deep into Mexico along the Gulf of California.  I encountered a group of young girls as I was walking the shore collecting seashells, as I love to do.  We neither spoke each other’s language.  The girls were probably as interested in an American on their beach as they were in what I was doing in particular.  I showed them the pocket full of shells I had collected and then oddly enough they did the same.  It seems a universal habit then to pick up shells along the shore and show them off.  Humans the eternal collector and showoff!

One of the girls pointed to a particularly nice shell in my hand and I interpreted her expression of sounds/words to mean that she wanted to know if she could have it.  I sat down on the sand, spread out my shells, and invited her to do the same.  She immediately did so.  Amazing how much we communicate without words!

I saw a shell in her pile that I wanted, I drew two lines in the sand between us with a space in between.  I then reached over to her pile, picked up the shell I wanted, and placed it in the middle space.  I motioned with my hand that she could select from mine.  She grasped the idea quickly and did so, but selected a shell with which I was not willing to part.  I shook my head no, removed it from the middle, and invited her to pick again.  After she had chosen again I felt the one she selected was ‘worth’ more than the one I had chosen from her pile.  I made the sound of “hmmm” to indicate I was thinking about it and then I reached over and selected a second shell from hers and placed it in the middle.  I looked at her to see if she understood.  She shook her head yes and added a big smile, and we each took the shell(s) we had selected from the middle.  Our trading was completed.

We both seemed happy with our transaction, perhaps she was simply happy to have had interaction with an American.  Difficult to know!  But for me it was a  pleasant experience because we had done something as complicated as make trade decisions even though we did not speak each other’s language.  Later I reflected on trade deals and economics.  I realized that in our exchange we were both free to decline.  We both agreed to what we exchanged.  Neither of us had any power to force the other to trade unfairly.  We both knew what we were getting and what we were giving up.  We traded fairly.

So what does this have to do with the complex economic system we currently call our global economy?  The values of the seashells were arbitrarily chosen and what was valuable to me was different from what was valuable to her.  There wasn’t an intrinsic or objective value; we each decided what we were willing to exchange.  If it had been food or water and one of us had been hungry or thirsty the other could have held out for more because of the other’s need.  I tend to think of this as economic blackmail.  Supply and demand would also affect our trade decisions. If the beach had been covered with shells perhaps we would have seen no reason to trade for each other’s.  We all individually decide the value of the things we want and need.

Economics is a give and take, exchanging things we value; except we exchange dollars for cartons of milk, or pairs of shoes, or a package of meat.  And since we trade with dollars or some unit of currency it creates an intermediary, the ‘job’ where we acquire the dollars.  But economies are still about trading.  I trade my labor for the dollars you agree to pay me.  If you have more power than me I have less position to bargain.  The store owner trades dollars for products they then trade for more dollars.  The more intermediaries, the more complexity of the trading, the more difficult it is to see all the levels and ramifications of our trade.

Wages earners seem less able to negotiate the value of their labor making us less satisfied as employees.  We know less and less about the products we buy.  I go to a store and trade some dollars for a bottle of weed spray.  I don’t see the factory where it was made.  I don’t see how the factory affects the environment around it.  I don’t see the number of people who handled the bottle from manufacture to arrival in the store.  I don’t see the person who unpacked the container and placed the bottle on the shelf.  After using the spray in my garden I don’t see its effects on the microbes in the soil, the insects that visit the plant that was sprayed.  I don’t make the connection between the spray and a skin rash I develop later.  All of the things we don’t see or don’t make connections to are part of the reason why we’ve lost transparency in the trading system we call our economy.  And as trading has become more complex transactions are even less transparent.  Our purchases are increasingly affecting people around the world.

Trading seems to me to part of human nature, and it certainly has been important in the development or our civilization.  Rather than obsess about what we buy perhaps we should simply pay more attention.  Read labels and insist on good labeling and transparency because the more accurate the information the better informed we are as consumers.  We should do our best to find out about the product’s effect on users, producers, and the environment.  And we can start to think about how trade and economy work, how it affects the world. This is the power of the market; we are the market, we are on both sides of the market because we trade labor for money and money for goods.

We should keep in mind that across every ‘line in the sand’ is a another person.   It is much nicer when both parties have some power to trade or not, to walk away satisfied with the bargain.  And it never hurts to remember that every resource we trade comes from the earth.  We might dig it up, melt it, process it, make it into something with our hands or machines; but we still need the earth to supply the raw materials.  Ultimately, everything we trade is traded with the earth itself.

A Dreaming

I was driving home (doesn’t it seem like we are always driving?) and I began to daydream about spending one day without touching any kind of machine.  No cellphone, no refrigerator, no stove, no watch, no washing machine, no radio, no laptop.  Imagine that.  We lived for thousands of years without all these machines.

Even just to imagine a day without machines is a way to notice something, to notice how our everyday lives revolve around machines.  To notice all the moments (like now when I am typing this) when I am touching a machine.

Imagining a day without machines is a way to notice how there is another world on the other side of the bubble that we create around us with our machines.  This is the world that is inhabited by every other being on earth except us humans. A difficult and dangerous world, perhaps, but do we choose right in shutting it out?  Notice how we can barely imagine it anymore, how it frightens us. What to eat?  How to live?

Notice how our culture and civilization pushes us away from that world and towards the world of machines. How it is always pushing and pulling, nudging and “incentivizing” us to abandon and disown and trivialize that world.  How civilization actively undermines and destroys that world by its  economic exploitations — all in the name of keeping the machines running.  How civilization makes places – great buildings and factories –  where the non-machine world is kept out almost entirely.  How it is considered childish and idealistic to even believe that the natural world exists in its own right anymore.

Machines are very useful and help to make us comfortable but are they what give meaning to our lives?  Are they what we really want?

Speaking entirely for myself here, I don’t believe in machines.  They don’t give meaning to my life.  I use them to go along with everyone else and to do certain things but I don’t much care about them.

Why are we driven and herded to act as if we believe in them even when we don’t?

I care about people and animals and plants and the land.

But it seems like a great struggle to remember that and to live like that.

It feels like I have to fight against the tide to affirm that love, to affirm that the natural world even still exists.  It feels like an act of faith and rebellion to just reach out and touch that world of plants animals air water, instead of the world of machines.   Or it is considered quaint and impractical.

Why is it quaint?

Does anybody actually believe in these machines, when the chips are down, when you look at your life and what matters to you?  Do we only believe in them because we are afraid?

What are we so afraid of?

Maybe we should stop being so afraid.  Maybe we need courage.

We need the courage to reach out and touch that other world. To touch it is to believe in it. To believe in it as much (or more) than we believe in the world of machines. To give our time and our intelligence to it. To delight in and draw strength from it.  To believe in – rather than fear – our own humble, vulnerable human-animal selves.

We need the courage to assert the right of that other world of plants and animals to exist and to be sustained.  We need the courage and  confidence to make that other world somewhere where it is possible to live again, where we can choose to live in again.  We need the confidence to be champions of a world that does not define itself by machines, a world that will exist long after the last machine runs down. We need the confidence to remember and keep remembering, despite the subtle and blatant pressures to forget and disown, to fear and despair.

To remember this other, older realm will not make you rich but it will make you strong. You will be part of something older and bigger than the life and death of individual beings.  You will be part of the fabric of all beings. That is a truth to be strong in.  So raise it up in your heart and in your mind: this realm, our humble home, our dirt-poor family.

Maybe we can’t stop driving and burning fossil fuel today or tomorrow.  Maybe we can’t figure out how to do that today or tomorrow.  But if can know that we are home then perhaps we can see what is beautiful right in front of us.  If we know that we are home then we can slow down. If we know that we are home, then we can reach out and take pleasure in the world as it is.  If we know we are home we will not be driven and then maybe we can stop driving.

Community versus Consumerism

What is a smile worth, or a hug when you’re feeling bad?  Community is the experience of sharing and depending on others.  Consumer ideology tends to go in the opposite direction of community.  We are taught to compete against others for jobs and opportunity.  Consumerism creates an ‘us against them’ mentality that destroys our sense of common purpose.  If we are to get ahead, someone else must fall behind.  And even if others join our ‘hate group’ we still end up feeling condescension towards each other.  Rivalry corrodes relationship and destroys community.  Sharing mutual concern for each other binds us together in community.

Communities are made up of families and homes, the place where we feel a sense of ‘belongingness’.  There is something that stabilizes us when we belong, when we know where we come from, when our roots feed us even when we’re no longer there.  If our sense of community or family has been lost we feel cut off and adrift.  We derive value in a connection to the place we call “home” an identity that has a deeper meaning than just the name of the state or city in which we were born.  Home may be the house we grew up in, our parents, the source of our beginning.  Home may be the street on which we grew up.  It may be the view of the ocean, mountains, rolling farm land, or cactus dotted deserts.  Home may be the people we remember, the teacher, minister, or musician on the corner.  Whatever we think of as home, we carry this identity with us throughout life, no matter how far we travel or change.  Home grounds us and our rootedness gives meaning and stability to our life.

We are witnessing a significant erosion of both home and community in our society.  A large part of this is due to consumerism and globalization, the ability to purchase commodities made far away, distancing us from the people and places they were manufactured.  Were the shoes we bought manufactured by child labor?  We don’t know.  Was the food grown unsustainably in fields drenched with toxic chemicals?  We don’t know.  Are businesses exploiting developing countries?  We don’t know.  We only know that we need shoes.  We need food.  We need a job so we can pay for shoes and food.  When everything we purchase comes from somewhere else we are no longer living in community, we no longer know the people who grow our food and make our shoes.

We are also losing the connection to family and home because of how we spend our leisure time.  Reading email, surfing the web, checking social media are leisure time activities that we do most often alone.  These activities reduce the amount of time families play together, eat together, or talk about their day.   Children rarely play outside with other children, they prefer to play in their room on the computer.  Parents organize their children’s leisure time filling it with after school classes or team sports they believe are necessary to enrich their child’s life.  Even sports that used to be played in community have become organized around highly profitable businesses and travel teams.  It appears family time is a consumer product, something to be bought and sold.

Knowing who we are, where we come from, our origins, and belonging to a community is all part of developing a healthy psychology.  Working and playing with others we know well and depend upon is part of community.  When we know and like ourselves we are able to like others.  If we don’t like our self, we tend not to like others.  Hatred, bigotry, and racial prejudice lead to an unhealthy psychology that prevents us from being happy.

When we think of a happy person what do we imagine?  A happy person is someone that often laughs because they see humor in life’s situations.  A happy person has good health and well-being.  A happy person finds new people as interesting as they do familiar friends.  A happy person really listens when you talk to them and is secure enough to tell you honestly what they think.  A happy person is someone who feels loved and in turn loves others.

A gift economy is the opposite of a consumer economy, and gardening is truly one of the last gift economies that are still thriving.  Growing food in a garden encourages sharing.  Gardner’s share advice, plants, seeds, and produce. “Where did you get that beautiful plant?”  “How do you get such big tomatoes?”  “Please give me the recipe for this dip!”  When a neighborhood has gardens, people are neighborly.  You will share and receive fresh flowers or herbs, a bag of tomatoes, cucumbers, or zucchini; the excess from the garden.  You will visit with neighbors over the garden fence.  There is no sense of exchanging things of equal value, as in a consumer economy.  In fact, when my garden is producing too much, I am thankful that someone is willing to take what I offer.  It doesn’t matter if they give me anything in return.

Another community growing activity is the potluck meal in which everyone brings food to share.  Of all my memories from childhood the church potluck picnic is my favorite.  Tables covered with homemade food; children running about playing; adults sitting around talking.  People look you square in the face and ask “How are things going?” and you feel safe enough to tell them the truth.  Maybe ‘not so good’ and it’s nice to finally unburden yourself.  Maybe ‘something great has happened’ and you love to share the good news.  After lunch the adults would organize a softball game and everyone cheered for both teams.  This type of community gathering makes communities stronger.

Communities are places occupied by families and people who help when you need it.  We can depend upon each other.  Communities are places where people don’t need laws to tell us how to behave towards each other.  Our concern for our place in community controls how we behave.  Is everyone perfect?  No.  But it wouldn’t be a community if we didn’t have someone to talk about!  Hard to be arrogant when others have known you at your worst as well as your best.  Can communities become too enclosed, walled off from new thinking and change?  Yes.  But the opposite extreme is the World Wide Web where we are not walled off from much of anything.

Every time we turn on the T.V., surf the internet, or open social media platforms we are opening up to a flow of information that can be toxic and damaging.  There is a lot of negative comments and fake news stories spread on social media, cyber bullying that has become all too common.  Social media has become the worst form of social pollution.

The question to ask ourselves is “How does this make me feel?”  If what we read or hear makes us feel sad, confused, and miserable, then it’s pollution, it’s polluting our mind.  We can seldom do much to change the bad situations we hear and read about in the news.  And what we can’t control, we can’t be responsible for.  So when we read a story and imagine ourselves in someone’s place and feel bad, it isn’t a real and genuine life experience, we are merely being voyeurs.

What real purpose does it serve to watch stories about the horrors or violence that happens to others in the world; so that we can feel depressed?  By all means be informed and change your life where you can so that your consumption patterns make a difference.  I’m not suggesting ignorance is bliss.  I’m saying that ingesting negative disturbing information about things we can’t change is like eating junk food, it has no nutritional value.  It just makes us emotionally and mentally sick and depressed.

The places where we can act are at home and within our community.  Find ways to connect with the people around you.  Have a conversation with your husband, wife or child.  Make friends with your neighbor by stopping to talk when you see them outside.  Shop locally.  Get involved in your community through volunteer work or join an organization that does work you support.  Become a better friend to yourself.  Shut off the computer or phone and read a book now and then.  Enjoy a relationship with the writer.

Stop looking for happiness in consumption, shopping for stuff you don’t need.  Find your place, your home and community and occupy it.  Sometimes there will be sadness, but there is something you can do about it.  You can be there, for real, in person.  And you will also be there to share the happiness too.  You will experience the richness of belonging.

Identifying Social Pollution and the Erosion of Community

Following on our earlier discussion of community as a necessary myth or story for our time and the discussion in the comments about the ambivalence of tradition as both grounding and nourishing but also sometimes stifling and rigid…

Something that both “liberals” and “conservatives” can agree on is that our current American way of life is marked by extreme loss of community.  What we disagree on is who or what is to blame.  (Actually both sides like to pin the blame exactly on each other: conservatives blame the disruptive moral relativity of liberals and liberals blame the pro-business ideology of conservatives.)

I have been thinking about how traditional communities with their shared culture have been decimated around the world by the onslaught of the West with its monetized economies and emphasis on individual achievement/success over the health of the family or the community.   Western market economies (and their imitators around the world) are incredibly successful at producing consumer goods and creating material prosperity.    But it seems to me that this success has been bought at the cost of family and community coherence, not to mention environmental degradation.

We have gotten better at identifying and addressing physical pollution, (partly, it’s true, by off-shoring manufacturing), but are slower at seeing the social pollution that has eroded our communities.  We still see this social pollution as necessary and inescapable.   This is the way it is, we have been told since as long as we can remember. It is hard to see what is necessary and what is harmful. We don’t have the tools to understand and mitigate this kind of pollution yet.   And without understanding social pollution we seem to be trapped in a system that drives us to contribute to physical pollution.

For instance, many people commute long distances to work and  spent their days and energy at jobs that do not build a local community.  Instead their job will support the interests of a national chain or a multi-national corporation. Such corporations are primarily interested in communities as groups of consumers, and only distantly interested, if at all, in the health of a community.

What constitutes a healthy community?  What constitutes the unhealthy social pollution of a community?

I would argue that social structures – economic, cultural or institutional – that destroy the place-based bonds of a human and natural community are a form of pollution.   Probably there are other ways to identify what is polluting, but that is my starting point.

What has become blindingly obvious in the last few years (2016!!)  is that we live in a very socially polluted world.  Not that there ever was a social world – some perfect Golden Age – that wasn’t polluted.  Just because we don’t know what a perfectly healthy community would look like doesn’t mean that we can’t recognize the things that pollute and weaken a community and that we can’t identify beliefs and practices that are better versus worse in building community in a particular place.

What is healthy in one community might not be so for another.

Things that destroy human and natural community might include: adapting the environment to the needs of machines rather than the other way around, or the ideology of perpetual economic growth or the globalized food production and distribution system.  Community-destroying pollution also might be in the stories we tell ourselves and our children about how the world works and what success looks like.   Also in what we tell ourselves is beautiful and desirable.

What is pollution for one person might not be for another, just as a weed is just a plant that I happen not to like at this time.   Again there is no state of perfect purity that we can go back to or that it is even useful to imagine.   But maybe the idea of social pollution connects the natural and social environment in a way that might be helpful when we think about our lives and communities.

Some quiet time with the wildfire

In the last three days a wildfire has turned 800 acres of pasture on our ranch to black. It was a very dry pasture with very dry feed, hence the wildfire, but still  it was good feed, like standing grass hay. 

These fires happen periodically when it gets dry.  Every ranch around here gets their turn at this and it is no cause for despair.  But it is a painful blow to lose so much feed for our cattle when we are in a Stage Two Drought and there is no predicting the weather-patterns anymore.

I don’t know how the fire started. Probably a careless fisherman tossing away a cigarette into a clump of dry grass as he crossed our pasture on the way to or from the ocean. Maybe it was started deliberately by a local “firebug” – a person that likes to start and watch fires. It doesn’t really matter how it started.  What matters is that once it got started it was almost unstoppable.

This is a photo from the first night, when it had burned all day and eaten up about 200 acres. This is just before a bulldozer got in to cut a firebreak – a line where the brush has been scraped off, depriving the fire of fuel.   When the firebreak  was done the line of flames died out and it seemed we had the fire stopped.

But that was a vain hope.  The next day the wind picked up and the embers that had been smoldering “in the black” leapt to life, crossed over the firebreak and consumed 500 acres between 9 am and 1 pm.  More firebreaks were made and again as the wind died at dusk the flames stopped at the newly made firebreaks.  But there were smoldering piles waiting all along the line.

The next morning I decided to get to know this fire personally.  I have to admit that this is the first wildfire that I’ve taken the time to get to know face-to-face, one-on-one. During all the previous fires I’ve stayed distant while my father or brother got involved in assisting (and sometimes surreptitiously directing) the fire-fighting effort.  But for this one I decided I needed, finally, to try to understand what was happening.  Why was this fire defying the efforts of a half-dozen fire-crews and two helicopters?  How could it keep leaping the firebreak even though it was a back-burn i.e. burning against the wind?  What is the most effective way to fight a range wild-fire?

So I went down to the fire-line early before the wind picked up, before anyone else was there and watched the fire.  I didn’t bring any equipment to fight the fire.  I just wanted to be there with it for a while, to see it up close, rather than watching it from a distance or running around reacting to it or talking about it with other people.

Everything was black on the far side of the firebreak, white smoke streaming in tiny wisps from single blades of grass, or billowing extravagantly from half-burnt piles of debris that the bulldozer had pushed to the side.  A little way into the black orange flames burned in a pile of wood at the base of a brush tree. I stopped there looking at this few hundred feet of the fire-line on this, the back-burn end of the fire.

What amazed me was that the dirt seemed to be quietly on fire, reaching by slow black inexorable fingers across the fire-break.  I stuck the toe of my boot into the hot, black dirt and discovered that it was a root that was burning, the underground root of a clump of grass that had already been incinerated, and that burning root had blackened the dirt all around it.  Even with no fuel for it above ground the fire was slowly crossing the fire-break.  

The sun shone hot on the dark soil and the dark burning debris radiated heat and then the wind picked up slowly.  Out of what was smoldering and smoking emerged active orange flames, burning, reaching back against the wind to patches of fuel, flaming, reaching.  The fire was going to cross the break and there was still only me watching.  And then just as the fire crossed and orange flame burst out in a clump of grass in the unburnt side a team of firefighters arrived and doused the flame.  If they had been a minute later they would have been too late.  But this was just one spot on the mile-long line.  

After the fire-fighters arrived I went for a walk down the fire-break. Rounding a corner  down the line I saw a brown columnn of smoke and the roar of a wildfire at full-bore.  We had lost the line again after all.  I turned and walked quickly back to my truck, hearing the roar of the fire following me.  I told the fire-fighters what I had seen and evacuated behind the next fire break line.  Before long red flames were shooting into the sky very impressively and we had lost another thirty acres.

Finally, late on the third day, we got the only help that mattered, the thing that we could not ask for or requisition: a misting, then a very light drenching of rain.  It was not enough to put out the fires but it was enough to dampen the hot dirt and the hot air and discourage the fire from its willful spread.

On the fourth morning the wind did not pick up and the fire-fighters could get a handle on the fire.  Late on this, the fourth day, more rain came.  I’m pretty sure that it is over this time.

What did I learn there with the fire?  That if you want to fight a range fire with any hope of success you need to know a lot of things, such as the wind pattern for that area and the kind of vegetation there.  That timing is everything: you need to be able to think 12 hours ahead and at the same time be ready to change and react instant by instant  as the wind, the humidity, the terrain that the fire is on changes.   That you will probably not be able to beat the fire no matter what you do because when it starts burning it just wants to keep burning.

And that the world when it is burning is a very different place from when it isn’t.

A future we have yet to imagine

Ever since I read an article by George Monbiot I’ve been thinking about myths, the stories we’ve told since the beginning of time.  Monbiot writes “Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand. You cannot take away someone’s story without giving them a new one.  It is not enough to challenge an old narrative, however outdated and discredited it may be. Change happens only when you replace one story with another. When we develop the right story, and learn how to tell it, it will infect the minds of people across the political spectrum.” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/09/george-monbiot-how-de-we-get-out-of-this-mess

In every culture, every community, every family, every generation we tell our stories.  The form of telling has changed, from spoken to written, from books to video, to computer and internet.   I was talking to my mother recently about our family history and she said, “Well, you tell a good story!”  I realized in that moment that my stories of our family are different from my mother’s.  The stories of what happened, when and most importantly why have changed as I’ve grown older but they remain a central part of me and who I identify as my ‘self’, as different from my mother and her generation.  And I wondered what stories will my children and grandchildren tell about their past, my present, and issues such as what we did or didn’t do about climate change.

The stories we tell shape our beliefs and actions.  Neoliberals on the left and Libertarians on the right have something in common, the belief that the human individual, if left to his or her own good nature, would create a just and free world.  Authoritarians, both political and religious, have taken the opposite view that humans are basically weak or sinful and without a strong leader or a God, we behave badly.  So what is the truth?  Are humans basically good, or basically bad?  Can we trust our motivation to act in time to address climate change or will we simply be forced to endure the consequences? I think the truth is we are neither one nor the other but capable of both, behaving in different ways as we mature into adulthood.

As a baby we absorb information but have no fixed identity of self, this is why babies are seen as innocent.  As children we develop our identity, our ego, our moment of narcissistic reality “I am someone”, and we become able to act.  As we develop adulthood we move beyond self-centered narcissism and begin to develop social consciousness, relating to others around us.  How far we develop as adults varies.  Some people never move beyond narcissism, clinging to the idea that they are uniquely special and acting only to benefit them selves.  Some people move a little beyond, extending their ego identity as far as their tribe, giving their allegiance to a group identity, and distrusting other groups.  Racial prejudice and bigotry are a norm for such groups of people, still acting to benefit only Us not Them.  Very few people reach the state of maturity which goes beyond human identity seeing the complex connections between all life forms, learning to respect life beyond human form.

The story I believe to be true is that humans need personal contact to evolve.  Living life through social media is stunting our growth as humans because of the absence of direct, immediate personal contact.  We need the presence of a close and loving family, a small group of people that know us well, others that we trust.  Families need a stable home, a place where we are nurtured, where we feel safe.  Home is the place we come to rest, to take sustenance, to rejuvenate.  Homes occupied by families need the continuity of community, the groups of families living near each other and sharing values, resources, a way of living and supporting each other.  As the familiar group enlarges beyond a certain size, beyond the community in which we live, we lose direct personal connection with others. In a community, norms function better than laws because it is the people themselves that enforce socially accepted behaviors. In the larger society laws and government become necessary because individuals no longer act, groups act.  Communities need stable connections to other communities, good ‘politics’ to govern our treatment of others.

We do not really know what life is like for others that live in another state, or another country, unless we visit them.  We need travelers and teachers…people who are part of our group but have knowledge of others.  Through them we come to know a larger family we call humanity.  I think Monbiot is right “We have been induced by politicians, economists and journalists to accept a vicious ideology of extreme competition and individualism that pits us against each other, encourages us to fear and mistrust each other and weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living.  We have lost our common purpose.”  If dystopia, war and destruction are all we can imagine, then violence may be all we can expect.

The story I believe is that we are all part of this dance called life, each of us having our own way of seeing and being.  Every living creature lives in this dance, dependent upon environmental stability to fulfill its main purpose of birth, growth, reproduction, and death.  Humans are different from animals because we search for meaning in life.  And although we may see life’s purpose as different from that of a plant, an insect, another mammal, at the core we all are part of the same striving to exist.

I think finding our way forward, is seeing the value of each other in community.  We need the stodgy old English teacher that insists we learn the proper rules of writing.  We need the conservative traditionalists that keep faith with the past, so that when we go off track we know how to find our way back.  We need the scientist, explorer, radical innovator looking for new ideas because we won’t solve our problems with the same thinking that got us into this mess.  We need the mystics, writers, poets, and artists to help us imagine a world we ourselves cannot see.  And most important of all, we need to coexist with all of the life around us.  We need to listen to each other’s stories, because someone else, even some other life form, may help us find a way into a future we have yet to imagine.

Comparing Woods and Forests

The funny thing about Hawaiʻi is that we donʻt have “woods.” We have forests: dry forests, wet forests, extra-wet forests, perpetually raining forests.  (We do have the wettest spot on earth here, high on the mountain top of  Waiʻaleʻale on the island of Kauaʻi.) This is what a wet forest nearby looks like.  Mostly giant ferns and small shrubberies, with a canopy of ohiʻa lehua (Metrosideros collina).  It looks just like that pretty much all year long.

Iʻm not sure why we donʻt have woods in Hawaiʻi.  For one thing, itʻs just not a word that people use.  No one says: “Iʻm going for a walk in the woods.”  So it may be simply a linguistic peculiarity.  But it feels deeper than that.  Maybe  you need a temperate climate with its annual cycles and its interplay of animals and plants throughout the year for that feeling of a woods to develop.   Maybe itʻs because the kind of landscape that would make a woods  – a relatively open sort of forest through which one could walk at will – is both rare and non-native here.   You have to make such a landscape with either labor or pastured animals.  Maybe itʻs simply because these islands are  too young geologically (only a few million years) to have developed such a storied kind of being as a wildwood.

Guest Post: by Elizabeth West

Note:  I found this article at Resilience.org to resonate with so many of our themes here I emailed Elizabeth and asked if I could reproduce it.  – Michelle

On the Road to Extinction Maybe It’s Not All About Us

It is crystal clear—unlike the smoky skies where I live–to most of us who are willing to consider the facts: this summer’s ‘natural’ disasters have been seeded anthropogenically.  Wildfires in the northwestern United States and Canada, in Greenland, and in Europe are often referred to in the media as ‘unprecedented’ in size and fury. Hurricanes and monsoons, with their attendant floods and destruction, are routinely described as having a multitude of ‘record-breaking’ attributes. No one reading this is likely to need convincing that humans –our sheer numbers as well as our habits—have contributed significantly to rising planetary temperatures and thus, the plethora of somehow unexpected and catastrophic events in the natural world. I’d like to include earthquakes, particularly those in Turkey (endless) and Mexico (massive), in this discussion, and while intuition tells me that there is a connection between them and climate change, research to support this supposition is just emerging, so for the nonce I will leave the earthquakes out of it.

Our proclivity for advancing our own short-term interests has made a mess of things from the beginnings of this current iteration of civilization. Irrigating the Fertile Crescent, which was not very fertile prior to the ingenious innovation of bringing water from the mountains down into the dusty plains, opened the way for a massive increase in food production and a concomitant population rise. Cities grew and became kingdoms. After a reasonably good run, though, irrigation led to salination of the soil and ultimately left it sterile and useless (for agriculture) once again. Many people and their livestock starved or were forced to migrate in large numbers. Great idea, irrigation.

The internal combustion engine seemed a brilliant response to the need to move more commodities more efficiently as the Industrial Revolution created both increased product and demand. Though not necessarily so intended, the automobile initially offered humans wildly expanded freedom and ease. It also led to pumping the innards out of the Earth, filling the atmosphere with CO2, and oil-grabbing wars that left hundreds of thousands of people dead.  Another great idea with a few minor issues that did not get worked out ahead of time.

Plastic.  Now there is an incredible invention. Tough, pliable, lightweight, eternal…this stuff filled a myriad of needs. And conveniently, it could be produced using the fossil fuels we were already extracting for those internal combustion engines. Sadly, we never imagined it would come to microscopic plastic filaments in our drinking water, our sea salt, and even our beer. Not to mention in the bellies of just about anything that lives in the Earth’s oceans.

The list of creative inventions designed to make our lives better is long and varied, but almost inevitably, given enough time, our interference (or improvements, if you prefer) upon the natural state of things comes back to bite us.  And hard.  Fukushima could easily head up that list; most of us would have no trouble adding to the tally of follies flowing from Homo sapiens’ clever life hacks.

If you delve into the motivation behind these ‘advances’ there is generally a desire on the part of people to make life safer or more comfortable or easier in one way or another.  Maybe for themselves and their tribe, or their class, or their nation, but still—the impetus does not tend to flow from a place of malignity. We simply use our big brains to see what is adversely impacting our species (or sub-group thereof) and devise a fix for it. How could that possibly go so wrong?

Hindsight, they say, is always more acute than foresight. Could this be because we do not understand fully how our world works?  Is it possible that we lack a lot of critical information about the ways in which this planet’s life forms and forces are interwoven and connected?  Maybe our superior intelligence, while it has been billed as a powerhouse in the problem-solving department, does not really have the scope of vision that would ensure that problems—solved–stay solved?  Hmmm…might there be an issue with hubris here?  And how do we solve that?

What appear to be straightforward challenges that should yield to linear corrections are in fact predominantly multifaceted and many layered. We see only what we see—because we do have limits in terms of perception– and we act upon that. No real fault there. But you do something over and over and over and get consistent results, you keep being bitten by your brilliant solutions. Quick gains, long-term disasters: this is a pretty common human story. Are we capable of examining it? Even acknowledging it?  Of recognizing that our anthropocentrism and self-assurance may be doing us more harm than good despite (or possibly because of) our fêted cognitive capacities?

So here we are: the summer of 2017 with the arctic ice melting, the temperatures rising, the oceans rising and acidifying, our non-human companions on the planet going extinct like nobody’s business. We thought about ourselves from the get-go.  From the beginning of known human history, we wanted better lives, longer lives, happier lives. For ourselves. We used our gifts to reach for what we wanted, like toddlers, with no sense of the bigger world around us, no notion of the consequences of our actions. No awareness of the unfathomable complexity and the perfection of balance represented by the environment we inhabit.

Or, no will to act from that awareness. Because in all fairness, someone has always pointed to it. Not everyone thought situating nuclear power plants on earthquake faults was a bright idea. And no doubt there was someone back in Sumer who advised stridently against the moving of mountain waters to the fields in the valley.  But the collective, or the powers that own the collective, were not interested in anything that thwarted short-term gains.

We have careened along, from one improvement to another, many of them requiring their own fix a bit down the road.  Now we look at super-storms and mega-fires and what do we see?

Unfortunately, as is almost always the case, we see our own interests and little else.  I have been perusing reports and commentary from a wide variety of sources and there is a lot of factual information: the size of the fire, how many miles per hour the winds are blowing, how many acres are still uncontained, or in thrall to the winds and rain. Then, there are stories about losses. Photos and videos and details about homes destroyed, businesses wiped off the map, human injury and death.

But do we talk about the other life forms affected by these human-accelerated events in nature?  In nature, I repeat.  Do we read or talk or hear about the animals who die?  The trees lost? The sea life and habitat ruined? Yup, there are bits and pieces about the animals that belong to us, which are, like our houses and businesses and automobiles, more possessions.  Pets, livestock, even zoo animals are considered.  How do we shelter the cheetah at the Miami Zoo?  Or what about the Cuban dolphins airlifted out of danger to a safe place on the opposite side of the island? Heartwarming, I suppose, and good for those dolphins, but what happened to the wild ones in the sea?

Here is the thing: we helped make these disasters because we always thought about ourselves and neglected to consider the balance of life.  Because our needs were far and away more important to us than the spotted salamanders’.

And maybe that is true. Maybe our lives are more valuable than all the other lives. Who am I to say?  I too am human and subject to the same hubris and shortsightedness as everyone else.

Still…if something is not working, I ask: why keep doing it?  Even if you have no natural affinity for the pine martens who die in the fires or the sandpipers who are flung to their deaths in the monsoons, pragmatism would suggest a change in practice.

We can’t prevent the suffering and dying of wild life, and the Earth herself, when confronted by the unleashed forces of fire and water, but we can include them in our assessment of the cost. We might even grieve for them. Their losses are indeed ours, and if we do not see them or their importance to our lives, if we continue to either ignore and/or dominate all other life on this planet, it won’t be long till we join them.

This piece of writing is, in a ridiculously small way, an attempt to acknowledge those losses that have gone unseen. It isn’t much, but I invite you to join me in taking a few minutes to honor and mourn those who have died in this summer’s conflagrations and deluges. We won’t know much about most of them, but we do know that they lived and we know that they died.  And that we are all diminished by their deaths.

Elizabeth West has a lifelong interest in revolution, and in exploring the interstices where love, truth, imagination and courage meet, sometimes igniting wild transformation. Her political writing has appeared in CounterPunch and Dissident Voice. Write her at elizabethwest@sonic.net or visit her website www.loveslonging.com

Everything Belongs

“When you don’t know you are connected and one, you will invariably resort to some form of violence to get the dignity and power you lack. When you can become little enough, naked enough, and honest enough, then you will ironically find that you are more than enough. At this place of poverty and freedom, you have nothing to prove and nothing to protect. Here you can connect with everything and everyone. Everything belongs.” [from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Monday September 18. His topic is Nonviolence]

When we think of nonviolence we usually think of how it applies to our relationship to other humans.  When we think of helping those in need we think of people suffering.   Certainly our human relationships are important to consider, but I think we also need to see that all of life on earth belongs and deserves thoughtfulness and consideration.

The soul of earth shelters us all.